February 9th, 2009


7 February 2009: The worst day in Victoria's history

I think I better make an entry. I haven't been doing so well lately and retreated away from communication, hence the lack of entries and comments last month, but the past weekend has just thunderously put everything into perspective. I've received a few messages from people overseas who have seen the Victorian bushfires on the news. I'm personally unaffected. I live in an inner northern suburb of Melbourne, so there isn't really a bushfire threat in such dense suburbia, though I could get to some of the worst affected areas in under an hour. Some of them are places I've been; I'm wondering what has happened to various orchards and vineyards whose produce I've enjoyed.

We've been wilting in high temperatures for the last couple of weeks. Our summer had been gloriously mild, but the last week of January brought some record temperatures, including three consecutive days well into the forties Celsius. It cooled to around the low 30s for the first six days of February. Then came Saturday. Central Melbourne recorded its hottest temperature ever, 46.4; Essendon Airport, the closest weather station to me, recorded 46.9; Avalaon Airport to Melbourne's west got to 47.9; Hopetoun in the west of Victoria set a state record temperature of 48.8. For those of you still using Fahrenheit, 46.4 is 115.5 and 48.8 is 119.8. Add to that relative humidity of merely 6% and wind gusts exceeding 80km/h, and you have a recipe for disaster. My place stayed astonishingly cool; I'm well located for riding out heat and barely needed the fan on. But I stepped outside at the height of the heat, and walking through the front door was like stepping into a blast furnace. Saturday really was something else. Even compared to 30 January, the previous hottest day of the heatwave, on which I did a ridiculous 30 minute walk from Essendon railway station to my house, Saturday felt to me like it was in another league.

Victoria has been in prolonged drought. The land is achingly dry; grass feels closer to straw. There were already some fires burning. The state was basically just a giant tinderbox, and with such extreme weather, you knew something had to give. I was reading warnings on Saturday morning that it could be the worst day in the state's history. It felt a bit like over-hype. It wasn't at all. The place fucking went up.

At about 5pm, a cool change rolled in. Good for those of us wilting in the heat, but otherwise disastrous. The direction of the wind abruptly wheeled around and fanned the flames across much wider fronts. The fires were completely out of control. Two separate fires merged into a huge inferno in the Kinglake/Marysville area just to Melbourne's north. The speed is just unimaginable. The dry foliage acts as a natural accelerant; the fires spread through the air as much as they do on the ground and in some cases were moving at over 100km/h. People who thought the fire was going to bypass them were so sharply caught by the wind change that they didn't have time to get out. Some flames were over 40 metres high; the heat was enough to kill a person before fire even touched them; the smoke was so thick that many people trying to escape in their car died in crashes because they could not see other vehicles or obstacles.

Kinglake is gone. Marysville is gone. Strathewen is gone. Narbethong is gone. Towns across the state, from the Gippsland region to Bendigo and Horsham and elsewhere, have suffered deaths and damage. Highways and railways were cut; some rail lines still have not reopened. It is possible that 15% of Strathewen's population is dead. As I type, the death toll is 135 and there are fears it will pass 200 or 230. To put this into context, the previous worst bushfire was Ash Wednesday in 1983. 75 people died; 47 in Victoria and 28 in South Australia. Victoria's previous worst was Black Friday in 1939 when 71 died. In a land where bushfire is a natural occurrence and part of the ecological cycle, this blaze was so extraordinary that it looks like taking double, possibly triple, the amount of lives of the previous worst fire. It may just be the worst natural disaster, the worst peacetime disaster in Australian history. This is ... beyond comprehension.

I may not be directly affected, but god I'm rather rattled by this. People I know have been affected. Fires continue to burn across the state. The death toll just keeps climbing, as the emergency services find more charred bodies in cars and homes. It is indescribably depressing.

Useful links for media coverage: plenty of articles accessible from The Age's main page and there is a bushfires section on the ABC's website. There is also, of course, Wikipedia, including satellite imagery of the fire visible from space.

For all I've written here, I find I have entirely no words to articulate what's happened. In typing this, the horror has sunk in further, but so has the complete disbelief at the magnitude of it all. It's unfathomable.